Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Are Both Missing a Syria Plan
By Linda Qiu and Katie Sanders
News shows were ground zero for campaign spin Sunday.
Hillary Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook shrugged off This Week host George Stephanopoulos’s questions about the Clinton Foundation accepting foreign government donations, pivoting to the foundation’s charitable work and calling Donald Trump “a puppet of the Kremlin.”
New Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, meanwhile, said the Republican nominee is coming off his “best week” yet, days after campaign chairman Paul Manafort tendered his resignation amid reports of his business involvement with pro-Russian officials in Ukraine.
Stephanopoulos pressed Conway to explain if Trump’s recent statement of “regret” for some things he has said during the campaign would lead to apologies to either the family of a Muslim-American soldier who was killed in Iraq or war veteran Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). She said Trump’s “regret” was more general.
“He’s expressed his regret publicly and said, if I have caused you personal pain—that can include me, that can include you—that he regrets that,” Conway said.
The politics left little room for discussion of a haunting video showing a dazed Syrian boy, Omran Daqneesh, pulled from the wreckage of an airstrike—an omission in both nominees’ campaign proposals, according to Julie Pace, chief White House correspondent for the Associated Press and frequent Fox News Sunday panelist.
“If you are a voter in this election, and you look at that picture of that little boy and you feel sick to your stomach, like most of us do, you should look at your presidential candidates and demand a plan,” Pace said. “Neither Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump have a plan for addressing the civil war in Syria.”
Pace’s statement rates Mostly True.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, agreed with Pace that neither candidate has really tackled the civil war issue.
“In fairness to them,” he said, “it’s really difficult to address. The Obama administration has been tied in knots by it.”
The crisis in Syria involves myriad actors, confusing alliances, and conflicting motives. According to the United Nations, no side’s hands are clean of war crimes, including murder, torture, and rape. Investigators have also found evidence of President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS using chemical weapons against civilians.
More than 250,000 have died in the past five years, with millions displaced from the country. The crisis, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, is only getting worse.
The situation started in the mid-2000s, when a severe drought in the country’s breadbasket created an internal mass migration of refugees into Syrian cities already crowded by Iraqi migrants displaced by the Iraq war. That exacerbated existing problems like unemployment, corruption, and brewing discontent with the Assad regime.
The unrest reached its boiling point during the Arab Spring of 2011, when pro-democracy protesters took to the streets and were met with a government crackdown. That summer, opposition groups began taking up arms, and war erupted.
Religious divides and foreign power proxy wars make the conflict even more complicated. Most of the rebels are Sunni Muslim, backed by Sunni countries, like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as Russia, while Assad’s security forces belong to the minority Alawite sect, aided by Shia regimes like Iran and Iraq.
In the early days of the war, the Obama administration (with Clinton as secretary of state) focused on overthrowing Assad and supported moderate rebel groups. But the United States’ priorities have shifted to airstrikes on ISIS targets.
With that move, the United States has given Russia “freedom of action in backing Assad while the United States focuses on ISIS—choices that also empower Iran and raise critical questions about who will really win in Syria if the United States does defeat ISIS,” Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a working paper.
The record largely backs Pace’s claim that Clinton and Trump have yet to propose a comprehensive plan on how they would address the Syrian civil war. Clinton has given a few more specifics than Trump, whose campaign did not respond to us by deadline.
Both candidates talked about the war at large in fall 2015, when Russia began bombing anti-Assad rebels. In an interview, Trump said he wanted to “sit back and…see what happens.” Clinton, breaking with the Obama administration, advocated for a no-fly zone, in which unauthorized aircraft are prohibited from entering the zone.
Since then, Trump has said little regarding the civil war, keeping his focus on ISIS without a lot of specifics to preserve an element of surprise.
In recent months, Trump has repeatedly argued for working with Russia to “knock the hell out of ISIS.” This position is more or less aligned with the current policy of learning to live with Assad, Gartenstein-Ross said.
Clinton has been more specific than Trump regarding the conflict at large. Here’s what she’s proposed as a presidential candidate:
• A no-fly zone “that will stop Assad from slaughtering civilians,”
• Creating safe havens for civilians,
• More support for opposition forces,
• Removing Assad through diplomacy,
Both Pace and Gartenstein-Ross said Clinton’s varied ideas don’t amount to a full vision for ending the war.
“It’s a recipe for escalating the conflict without resolving the civil war,” he told us. “It’s unclear to me what the end game is and what the solution is.”
Neither candidate has said what should happen as a result of a piecemeal approach: Is the goal of a no-fly zone to help opposition groups oust Assad? Pace asked. Similarly, is the goal of working with the Russians on airstrikes to prop up Assad?
The United States’ narrow strategy in Syria may be self-defeating in the end, according to Cordesman. Even if ISIS is defeated, any new government will be “hopelessly unstable” given all the ethnic and religious divisions and foreign involvement.
“Both candidates may choose to continue to address these issues in silence, but there is even less doubt than in the case of Iraq as to what the real legacy of the Obama administration is likely to be by the spring of 2017,” Cordesman wrote. “The transition plan seems to consist of a poison chalice.”
Pace acknowledged that the Syrian crisis “is one of the world’s most difficult problems” but said that if the humanitarian crisis really matters to voters, they should make that known for this election and demand more clarity from the candidates.
“One of them will inherit this problem,” she said.
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